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Dorm Dining Must Be Important Priority for Institute

A. Arif Husain

Column by A. Arif Husain

The dining system at MIT is by far the most deplorable aspect of student life. It must be overhauled. The community has recognized this fact to some extent, but the threat of becoming overly bogged down in the minutiae of a new plan looms. The densely packed pages of the dining review working group's comprehensive World Wide Web site bear witness to this fact.

Such a vastly diverse body of opinion reflected among the student body has been a perennial scapegoat for an indecisive administration. Typically, it is politically necessary to cover all bases. Decisions are molded against the baseline MIT lifestyle, as dictated by the students who live it. In this case, though, we are looking not at an addition to, but rather at a complete alteration of that very lifestyle. MIT must act responsibly, by putting forward a paternal hand in the best interest of its students. Dining halls must be reinstated where appropriate, but less specifically, dining together on campus must be an objective as specific and requisite as living together.

Amid the boil of ideas, the Institute must remain focused on its professed goals. There are implicit reasons behind the pairing of housing and food in a single office; reasons which extend from the Institute's status as a residential institution. Some universities exist like cities: Students live in scattered apartments and attend classes but take care of the rest of their personal matters. MIT is not one of these. Residence on campus sets the stage for a very different level of academic and social interaction compared to non-residential schools. Dining is an equal partner in the development of such a campus personality. Presently, it is not treated with such regard.

My last semester, like the semesters before it, was marked by more than a few dozen pots of pasta and more than a few hundred bowls of cereal. Even more than the bad case of culinary ennui I suffered, it is the memory of having eaten most of those bowls of Total or rotini in the quiet of my own room or perhaps while loitering in the nearby hallway that strikes a bad chord.

Eating became a chore so irritating that I recall avoiding it until hunger made a strong enough case. Besides the time investment to buy groceries, cook, eat, and clean up, the food was dull and the experience was generally not a thrill. The nearby Aramark-run convenience store was always a frequented night spot, but Snapple and Tostitos only go so far. Something was clearly missing.

I propose that the Institute look to its nearest Massachusetts Avenue neighbor for a successful model. Harvard claims one of the largest collegiate dining systems in the country, with all of its undergraduates guaranteed three meals a day. Harvard dining halls operate in every residence house and are the social core of each facility. The daily menu is the same all over campus, and the food service is respectably diverse and all-you-can-eat. Having spent a few months downstream, I must admit that the cuisine is not always fantastic, but it's generally not bad, and as my Harvardite high school buddy put it, "It's comforting to know that it's there."

Dining space presently exists in Next House, MacGregor House, Burton-Conner House, Baker House, and McCormick Hall. The ones that are not open (all but Next's and Baker's are closed) should be reopened. Walker Memorial and Lobdell Food Court should also be improved to create a more effective and usable system. Most of the aforementioned dormitory dining halls were closed not too many years ago because of poor student turnout - the result of poor planning, bad management, and bad service. My optimism prevents me from seeing such attributes recurring in a well-thought out reinstatement. The dining mandate is one that the Institute is well within its charge to make. It should not falter.

Certainly, MIT is a unique place and should not be slapped with a system that works some place else. The details of a new policy must account for MIT's oddly linear campus setup and varied student hours influenced by lab work and athletics. It should be mandatory, not forced - a privilege not an infliction. Like any other new policy, a new dining plan should be enacted toward the next application year and be made optional for current students. Students should consider it in their decision to matriculate, just as they consider many other aspects of what MIT has to offer.

The next five years must serve as a transition stage into a richer and more pleasant lifestyle. What is important in the end is a strong commitment to include dining as a staple - a commitment that is as yet unmade. The dining review working group must not fail in this task when it presents its final report next month.

A. Arif Husain '97, former opinion editor of The Tech, is currently living in Gainesville, Fla.